Now, in the 1990s something else came into being that sped this process along even further. And this was more like warp speed, a sudden acceleration into the future. I am talking about the Internet, or more specifically the world-wide web as it evolved in the early 1990s. The web suddenly provided people three new types of power that had tremendous appeal. First, it gave us access to all kinds of information, without the need for newspapers or traditional forms of media. We could bypass those centers that controlled the flow. We could communicate with likeminded people and share information rapidly and directly with one another.
Second, it gave us the power to purchase items straight from the source, cutting out the middleman. This would tend to lower prices, but more importantly it greatly increased our choices. We could shop from any place around the world, finding precisely what we needed or wanted.
Third, we could express our opinions on any subject that mattered to us and find some kind of audience. We could review the products that we had purchased and gain some power as consumers. Or we could voice our opinions on political matters and find others that shared them.
What interests me here is not the technology, but how it changes our relationship to power and authority, altering in so many ways the social dynamic–how people interact with one another. In this instance, the Internet is flattening out relationships that were once hierarchical and funneled through various centers. This tends to eat away at the prestige and authority of traditional sources of information such as newspapers, or expert opinions. It calls into question the need for so many middlemen in the world, and reveals the dubious source of their power.
Take for instance the availability of digital music files and iTunes. When this began to spread it altered our relationship to music itself. We could pirate it on the internet or if so inclined, purchased this music directly and quickly. We could easily share these files. Now it became possible to accumulate a vast library of music and store it the way we wanted to, making us in some ways creatively involved in the process. We no longer had to purchase an entire album, which would often contain songs that were there just to fill space.
This created a massive problem for the record industry; they went into panic mode. It essentially destroyed their business model in which they were the sole powers that marketed, distributed and sold this music. This model was based on their ability to dominate the flow of money, and seduce artists into accepting their role as vassals to the industry, to be discarded when they were no longer so hot. Record executives tried desperately to hold back these changes, but once the genie was let out of the bottle it was too late. Who was going to go back to the old way of purchasing music? The aura of their authority and power had been shattered.
We could chart the same course for the mainstream media. It is interesting to note that this great dissolving of these power centers was preceded by an intense concentration of their power. This is almost a physical law that we have seen before in history, but the subject for another night.
I compare these changes that the web was producing in society in the late 90s and onwards to a small wave that was forming far out in the ocean, slowly gaining volume and force as it spread.
Stay tuned for the next installment, or read The Descent of Power as an ebook.